Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Hang THIS On Your Christmas Tree, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 7

"That's what he told us," Charlie finished, restlessly kneading the pillow he was holding on his lap. "That Robin Hood would be here tonight."

He was sitting on his bunk, Kippy beside him. Dinner had come and gone, a fine roast goose large enough for all of them, and fresh vegetables, and even fruit. Both Kontus and Pacha had eaten carefully, the Kift somehow determining which foods might not agree with them, but everyone else had dug in, their appetites honed by events of the day. Ibb had been everywhere, her and two younger women she had brought in to assist, helping to dole out the food, assuring that the platters stayed filled, and carefully attending them so that the meal was as pleasant as could be. It had been an excellent meal, but they also had been limited in what they could talk about with the locals so close at hand.

After the meal, they had asked Ibb what they could do to help clean up, but had been told in no uncertain terms that that was simply not done, and that they were to go immediately and enjoy their evening. Charlie and the others had come back to their room, and Rick had once again taken up watch at the doorway so that they could talk.

"Amazing," Horace said then, shaking his had. "That Robin's brother is the wizard here suggests he has been set to watch the place and help keep things going."

"Maybe," Mike said. "Or maybe he's here to see that the locals toe the line."

"I didn't get that from this man," Kippy argued. "I sensed a desire to help us...well, until he found out that his brother had brought us here. Even after that he seemed sympathetic, but just said there was nothing he could do to help us." Kippy frowned a moment, and then smiled. "I rather liked him, actually."

Charlie gave out a short laugh. "I did, too." He thought that over, and nodded. "But then, I kind of liked Robin Hood, too."

"He was pretty charming," Bobby said, with a grin. "Just like Erroll Flynn when he played the part."

Mike harrumphed at that. "That's the fifth time you've mentioned that bloke, Flynn. I'm going to need to see a photo of this fellow at some point, so I know what the competition looks like."

Uncle Bob and Horace both chuckled at that, and Bobby looked delighted. He smiled at his boyfriend. "Are you jealous, Mike?"

The other boy looked uncomfortable a moment, but then gave a curt nod. "Maybe. Just a little. I mean you keep talking about him, and all that."

Bobby sighed and put a hand on his boyfriend's wrist. "I had a little bit of a crush on him when I was younger, maybe. He was dashing and good looking, and had such a way about him." He winked at Mike. "He was a little bit of a rogue, like you."

Mike scratched his head at that and grinned, not sure quite how to take the comparison, but sensing that Bobby meant it in a good way. "Well...I try to be fun."

"You are." Bobby leaned closer, after taking a quick look at the doorway. "So stop worrying, okay? Flynn was a movie star, and the movies he made were adventures, and romances, and..." Bobby sighed. "Not real."

Mike nodded, understanding. "Oh. Sort of like a daydream, huh?"

"Right." Bobby sighed again. "Flynn died just two years after I was kidnapped from 1957. He's gone, Mike." He patted his boyfriend's arm. "I have you now, and I'm keeping you."

Mike rubbed briefly at his nose, and smiled. "I see we'll need some time to talk when this is all done."

Kippy laughed. "Talk? Is that what you call it?"

Mike made a face at him. "Now, now, Kipper. Mind your manners."

Charlie reached out and poked his boyfriend gently. "Leave 'em alone, Kip. You know how it is."

Kippy sighed. "Yes, I do." He laughed. "I love love."

Pacha gently patted the pillow he was sprawled on. "May I suggest we attend to the matter at hand?"

Charlie nodded. "I don't see what we can do but to wait until Robin Hood shows up." He looked over at the window, and then pointed to it. "It's getting dark out." He looked around at the others. "Any suggestions?"

"There is nothing we can do to affect this world," Frit told them. "Someone that can create on this level is beyond what Pip and I know."

"All we can do is wait now," Pip agreed. "The next move has to be Robin Hood's. Whatever reason we're here...he is the one that will have to let us know."

"Well...can we not just sit here?" Uncle Bob asked. "I'd feel better if we got out and walked around a little. From what Judd told us, people in this town will be out in the evening."

"By the Christmas tree next door, Judd said," Kiernan reminded. "I can't think of a nicer place to wait."

Charlie smiled. "Neither can I. Anyone object to that?"

It seemed no one did. They got themselves together and grabbed their coats, and filed outside into the night.

It was snowing. Charlie remembered the wall of gray they'd seen approaching while still on the mountain, and pulled the hood of his parka up onto his head. So far the snow was gentle, and had yet to stick to the ground. There was no wind with the fall, not even a tiny breeze to chill and nip and reduce the pleasure of it all.

"Oh, it's beautiful!" Kippy exclaimed, coming to rub shoulders with Charlie.

The town seemed unusually bright. Lanterns they had not noticed during the daylight, up on the walls of the shops around the square, cast a warm glow over everything. Even as they watched, a small wagon pulled by a horse finished up a circuit of the square, a man standing on a platform behind the wagon's driver reaching up at each stop to lift a lantern down, fill it with oil, light it, and then hang it once again from its peg.

A group of children ran past them, their arms held up in the air to greet the snowflakes as they cascaded downward. One little girl stopped near them and opened her mouth to taste the bounty, and then grinned at them as she ran on to catch her friends. The square seemed at least as busy now as it had in full daylight, though no one seemed to be working now, just enjoying the evening.

Next door to the inn, the fires had been lit to either side of the Christmas tree. The glassy baubles hung about the branches winked and glowed and flashed in the firelight, and a group of townsfolk had come together to watch the dancing lights and share company. The adults stood in little groups, talking animatedly, and laughing, while the smaller children ran all about them, stopping on each pass by the tree to marvel at its wonder.

"This is hardly the dark ages here," Uncle Bob said, from just behind Charlie. "I've never seen a happier town."

"It is that," someone said nearby, and Charlie turned to see the Wizard Jackin standing there. He smiled. "Hello, young Charlie. Come to see the sights?"

"Yes. And to await the coming of your brother."

The wizard nodded, and came closer. "It may not be as you expect."

"What does that mean?" Kippy asked.

The other man laughed quietly. "Just that I know my brother well. He seldom make the entrance one expects."

Charlie moved closer to the other man. "Do the people they know about Robin?"

"Of course. He is a part of the life of this town. He is well-loved here."

The others crowded around now. "What does he do here?" Ricky asked.

Jackin inspected him quietly, and then turned to Charlie. "Is all of your band blessed with magic?"

Charlie grinned at that. "Pretty much. I take it you sense it in us, just as we sensed it in you."

"Yes." Jackin's eyes roved among them, paused briefly at Kontus, moved onward, and then returned to Charlie. "But you are not a family, I sense. Not all related. Magic runs its course through family lines, we know. To see such a large group not related, yet all bearing the gift--" He leaned closer. "What is your purpose, young Charlie?"

Charlie frowned at that. "Our purpose? You mean in coming here? You already know that we did not come here willingly."

The older man shook his head. "No, not that. My brother's whim is well-seen in your arrival here." He waved a hand at the group."I meant - what is the reason that all of you are together? What is the mission of so many wizards?"

"We help people." Kippy said then. "When we can, anyway."

"Indeed? And for no recompense?"

"We don't do it for money," Rick said then, sounding just a little irritated. "It's not like that."

Jackin laughed,. "Then what is it like?"

Charlie looked around at the others. "We're friends. Some of us are family. We are together because we enjoy each other's company. We are together here because we became curious about your brother's actions in our world, and decided to look into them. And that's all."

Jackin nodded, and turned back to Ricky. "You asked what my brother does here? That's very simple." He waved a hand around at the town. "He ensures that all of this...everything you see here...goes on."

"Is it not self-maintaining?" Horace asked. "It sure looks like everyone here has a place, and works to keep things going."

"Aye, there's that." Jackin moved closer and lowered his voice. "This is the largest shire in Indland. Kinsborough is the farthest town from the spires of Lundinium in all the realm, yet King John rules with a mailed fist. My brother and his men ensure that the injustices of his crown are not visited here."

Charlie shook his head at the mixed history he was hearing. Evidently Robin had taken some liberties with the timeline in place here.

"He and his men fight with the King's men?" he asked. "I wouldn't think a band of outlaws could stand against the army of a king."

Jackin nodded. "True, if all were simply men. But my brother's magic is second to none in the land. Even that bastard of a king fears him, and only prods these lands lightly now and then, lest he stir the hornets to attack."

"Wow," Kiernan said, looking amazed. "That sure is a rewrite of the history we know."

Jackin eyed him uncertainly. "It is not the same where you are from?"

Charlie licked his lips, thought fast, and then decided on the truth here. "In the world we come from, this" --he waved a hand around at the town-- "is in the past. In our past, I mean. This period in our history is eight hundred years gone."

The wizard's eyes widened at that. "My brother speaks of such alternate worlds. Even that he has been to them. " He pointed to Charlie. "Yours is one such land?"


Jackin looked like he was thinking about that, and then laughed. "Leave it to my brother to stir up trouble in two worlds."

Charlie understood then that Jackin did not know that he and this land existed in a world made by his brother. Jackin thought this the real world, and that places like it, as in where Charlie had come from, were brother worlds, other worlds - alternate worlds. The man did not know the truth.

Jackin turned and pointed to the now invisible mountain where Pacha's ship sat, lifeless. "Then your problem with your flying egg is not one of magic, but one of science. Machines?"

Pacha leaned forward in Mike's arms. "You know of them?"

"Somewhat. I have seen examples that my brother has showed me. He has mastery over them, over the tiny lightnings that make them work. It is one of his ablest talents."

Tchk-tchk-tchk. "I suspected that his acquaintance with electrons was a formidable one."

Jackin looked as if he was not sure about that, but nodded. "Robin is the ablest wizard this land has ever seen. Only that talent keeps Kinsborough safe and free to be the town you see before you. The other towns pay their taxes and send their men to work in the King's fields, or in his mines, or in his ports, or to serve in his armies that march to and fro, keeping down the rebellion he so justly deserves served to him."

Charlie frowned at that. "You have seen these injustices with your own eyes?"

The wizard laughed. "Of course not. None travel from Kinsborough to other towns. It is only safe here. We would be fools to go seeking trouble outside these lands."

Adrian frowned at the man. "Then how do you know all these things?"

"I? Myself? I hear of them mostly from my brother. The town also knows from his lips, as they hunger for news of the outside world, which he is all too willing to share at his visits." Jackin shrugged. "And there are travelers, now and then, that come through on the roads."

"Where do these travelers come from, and where do they go?" Kippy asked. "I thought you said this town was the farthest one out?"

Jackin smiled at him. "It is the farthest from Lundinium, certainly. Yet there are a number of towns in these mountains. The road goes where it wills, and connects them all."

Charlie thought there was something off with that, but decided not to say anything more. He patted Kip's elbow, and when his boyfriend looked over at him, gave him a subtle look meaning not to pursue that line of questioning.

Jackin saw it, and sighed. "Very well. We all have our secrets, I suppose. I do not know what you know, young Charlie. Perhaps my brother will explain when he arrives."

Or not, Charlie thought to himself. That there must be some reason for this place seemed clear. But just what the reason was...Charlie could only speculate, and he didn't want to do that.

A cart arrived then, pushed by Ibb and one of the women she had taken on as help that evening, and cups were dispensed to the crowd. Even the children received them, and it was then that Charlie and the others learned that is was warm apple cider and not an alcoholic beverage. Charlie and his friends each received one, and the flavor was wonderful, and the warmth comforting. The snow still fell gently, without wind, and Charlie was sure now that there would be no blizzards here. This snow was to be savored and remembered fondly, not a hardship, but pleasant reminder of the season.

They moved closer to the tree, and watched as the reeve and his son added the occasional log to the fires on each side. It was not a task that needed constant tending, and both, the man and the boy, had friends nearby they retreated to in the intervals between additions. Whatever the wood it was being burned, it burned cleanly, with only the occasional pop or spitting of sparks into the air. The snow hissed faintly as it plummeted into the flames, but was not of a strength to cause the fires to pause.

The warm aroma of the smoke was lulling, the heat felt even where they were standing, making the cold evening quite enjoyable. That, and the age-old comfort of body heat on a cold night, the warmth of the crowd, the laughter, the cheer.

"This is wonderful," Kippy said softly, bumping up against Charlie. "And so romantic. I wish I know."

Charlie smiled at his boyfriend. "I do know. But better to wait, than to be sorry."

Kippy sighed. "I can't imagine such nice people doing anything hostile to us. The way they have accepted Kontus and Pacha as just one of our group tells me they are not the sort that do judgments. Something about this place...I just feel it would not be allowed, Charlie."

Charlie nodded. "You may be right. I can hardly imagine these folk displaying anything but the kindness we have already seen. But...I still think we should wait."

Kippy sighed. "I guess."

The were scarcely ten feet from the reeve, who spied them and waved, his eyes showing very clearly that the smile he sent their way was genuine. Charlie smiled and waved back, and was still looking that way when a man pushed his way gently through the crowd to the reeve's side, and whispered something into his ear.

Whatever was said, the look of alarm that replaced the smile on the reeve's face made Charlie suck in his breath. He watched a moment more as the reeve's alarmed look filled with worry as well, and then knew that he needed to get closer. "Come on, guys," he said then, waving a hand to his friends as he moved closer to the reeve. "Something's up."

They moved closer, and could hear the voice of the reeve then, despite that he was keeping it low.

"You're certain?" that man was saying to the newcomer, a tall fellow with a thick beard, and dressed more warmly than everyone there. This man had the look of having just come in from the night, from just arriving from someplace that held no fire. His cheeks were ruddy from the cold, but it was the look of urgency in his gaze that most impacted Charlie.

"Aye. They passed around the loop and stayed on the road, which gave me time to get here. But they'll be here in just minutes."

The reeve put a hand on the other's arm. "You're certain it's not him?"

The man's response was clear. "I only wish it were so. But he would come openly, and one of his men would come first, to save us from worry. These were clearly in a hurry, and just as clearly trying to be silent. Fortunately, a shod horse on stones is not easy to mask, especially in numbers."

"And how many would you say?"

The newcomer grimaced. "Dark, it was, but that many horses cannot be missed. Thirty to forty of them, would be my guess."

"King's men?" a new voice said, and Charlie turned to find Jackin beside him.

The bearded man turned to look at him. "Ho, Jackin. No, I don't think these were those bastards. They wouldn't dare, firstly, after the last lesson that Robin gave them, and they didn't have the jingle of mail about them at all, either. I'm thinking outlaws, as a guess. Or mercenaries, just as bad."

The reeve looked alarmed all over again, and his eyes immediately turned to the crowd. "We must get everyone indoors!"

Jackin stepped closer to the bearded man. "You were at the loop, Willard?"

"Aye. As I said, it was the only reason I beat them to town."

Jackin turned to Charlie then. "The road from the east nears the town but then loops around a thrust of tall tone from the earth. Cutting through the forest will save five minutes on the journey, but the forest is a tangle for horses, especially at night. Unless you know the way, as Willard does." He turned to the reeve then. "They will be here before we can get these people inside. I suggest we keep them in this group, and I will do my best to defend them."

Charlie immediately knew what had to be done. He put a hand out and stopped the wizard as he turned away. "What can we do?"

The man stared at them. "I don't know. What can you do?"

Kippy stepped closer then. "We won't let anyone hurt this town," he said urgently. "Not these people!"

Charlie heard the voices of the others behind him then, agreeing with Kippy.

Jackin stared a moment at the response, and then the shadow of a smile crept onto his face. "Then you are welcome to stand with me." He turned back to the bearded man. "Keep these people grouped here. We will place ourselves between them and the road on that side of the square."

"Aye, it will be done." The bearded man turned and scanned the crowd, which by then was waking to the fact that something was happening. Yet Charlie saw no panic, no real fear - just concern, as parents pulled their children closer, and the crowd came together as one.

"Til!" Willard called then, waving a hand. "Hamon! You, Col and Aldus! Gather to me!"

The four men turned to wives and children, reassured them, and then moved forward as their neighbors closed protectively around those left behind. Willard gathered the men around him, and leaned in to speak to them in a lowered voice that Charlie couldn't hear.

Jackin tapped him on the shoulder then. "If you and your friends would come with me."

The formed a line behind the man, and dropped off their cups as they passed Ibb and her cart. The woman took them gravely, nodding to each of them, and wishing them well. The strength which everyone here seemed imbued with struck Charlie solidly then. These were not a people that gave up easily.

Kippy moved up beside Charlie and took his hand. "I don't care what anyone thinks," he said softly. Charlie nodded, squeezed his boyfriend's hand, and they strode onward together.

Jackin led them past the central horse trough and around to the other side of the square, where the road came in past houses on the edge of the town. Here the way was guarded to either side by the same houses, and the only way into town from this direction was straight down this street. The wizard surveyed the road, seemed pleased to find no one there. "By my count nearly everyone was by the tree. We should be able to operate here without distraction."

He turned to Charlie then. "We should not be grouped. Perhaps a line across the road? They may try to ride us down if we are grouped too closely, and a man on foot does not well challenge a man on horse."

Charlie knew immediately that he was out of his depth here. "If you think that's a good idea."

The wizard smiled. "I do. A man can scatter faster than a horse can turn, providing his friends are not in the way."

"But they can just race right through us in a line," Ricky complained.

Jackin laughed at that. "Not past me, in any case." He waved a finger in the air. "Do you believe in your magic, or not?"

Ricky grinned then. "Well...yeah. I don;t know what i can throw at them, though." He turned to Adrian. "Time to ready the lightning bolts."

Adrian nodded, and waved his finger in the air in a repeat of what Jackin had done. "Let them try me."

Uncle Bob moved up beside Charlie and looked at Jackin. "Are they likely to be armed with bow and arrows?"

"Very much so." The wizard nodded. "Such projectiles will not reach me, and I can easily defend the width of the street. Should they ride at us in strength, I will have trouble holding them, and some will get through, Great is the mass of a man and a horse, and many of them can overwhelm the magic I have for that. But have no fear of arrows."

"I can put them all down, if need be," Pacha said then. "Let that mass you spoke of work against them."

"And I'll take them right off those horses if they piss me off," Kippy said, grimacing. "Mess with us, will they!"

Charlie smiled at that, and Kippy's fierce face broke then, and he smiled back. "But I'll try not to hurt them too badly!"

Uncle Bob turned to Charlie. "I'll take them right off their horses and teleport them to the roofs of the houses. Let them get down from there quickly without a ladder!"

Frit and Pip crossed their arms, and looked up the road. "They'll remember the day they messed with us, that's for sure!"

Charlie nodded, and looked around at his friends. "Not all of us have offensive capabilities just yet. Form a line across the road, as Jackin suggests, but I want Frit, Pip, Kip, Adrian, and Bob equally spaced in that line, to help protect the others. Look out for each other, okay?"

Kontus gave forth a genuine growl then. "I will yank them straight off those animals and toss them back into the night!"

Charlie smiled. "Um, try not to injure the horses, Kontus. They're not dangerous on their own."

"I know the law, Charlie. I will harm no animals, I promise you!"

Charlie turned back to Jackin. "I guess we should spread out?"

The wizard smiled at him. "Yes."

Charlie took comfort in that smile, and smiled back. "Are you worried?'

The wizard shook his head, and waved a hand at Charlie and his friends. "With such brave lads at my side? How can we lose?"

Charlie nodded at that. "I hope you're right!"

They formed a line then, with Charlie and Jackin at the center, and then alternating outward, with one of them able to strike and defend with one that was not. In this way they blocked the street, with a few feet of space between each of them.

They heard the soft clip-clop of many horses then, the sounds subdued by the snow, yet too pressing in number to be missed. Whoever the newcomers were, they approached slowly, quietly, with stealth their apparent goal.

Soon they appeared in the road, coming into the light riding eight across. There were at least four more rows behind the first, and Charlie saw then hat Willard's guess in numbers had been good one.

The horseman spied the line of men across the street then, and a rider in the center threw up a hand. The entire formation stopped.

Charlie leaned forward slightly then, peering at the front line. The men varied in dress, though all looked dressed warmly. Seven of the men wore thick, sleeveless leathers over their underclothing, designed to blunt the impact of sword or dagger. Each of the seven wore a steel helmet around which a fur lining protruded, with muffs over their ears. The rounded steel rim of the helmets broke above the eyes, and traveled downward in nose guards, leaving the eyes in darker hollows, giving the bearded faces something of a less animate appearance. They could almost be zombies, so little could be seen.

Each man wore a sword and a dagger at his belt. Several had bows on their shoulders, and the tall forms of arrows in quivers at their backs. There was a businesslike look to the group that stated very clearly that they had a goal of some sort, and plainly meant to attain it. And, that they knew exactly how to go about it.

Only the man all the way to the left was dressed differently. He also wore leathers over his torso, but instead of a helmet his head was encased in a hood rising from his undergarment, and no trace of his face could be seen. This man also wore sword and dagger, but his demeanor was more watchful than that of the others, less poised to strike somehow.

But for some reason, Charlie felt this man bore watching most closely, as some impression he gave forth was that of the most dangerous man they faced.

The man that had raised his arm looked to each side, said something they couldn't hear, and kicked his mount into motion. But only the first line moved forward, and slowly, while each man's eyes moved quickly about, surveying those before them, and the houses to each side, looking for danger sources at windows and doors, but seeing nothing.

They stopped twenty feet away when the same man raised his arm again. He leaned forward on his horse to look at them then. "You will give way."

Jackin cocked his head to one side. "For what reason? There is nothing here for the likes of you.'

The horseman gave a grunt. "We tire of travel, and would rest at your inn. A good night's sleep, and we will be on our way."

The wizard watched the man, apparently not believing a word of it. "An interesting way you come to visit, riding in silently in the night, and in strength. You know the laws of the hinterlands. A single rider enters to bargain with the city reeve, and a pact is reached, before all may enter."

The horseman laughed. "City? This place?" He spat into the snow then. "This is but a flea on the rump of my horse, next to a city. Nothing here to offer but a bed and a meal."

"And yet, you still did not abide by the law to seek entry."

The man sighed, and eyed them intolerantly. He pointed at Jackin. "You will give way, or we will ride over you."

"That will not happen."

"The one on the left," Pacha called quietly then. "He is a power user!"

That was what Charlie had been feeling from the hooded man. The presence of skwish, and in quantity. Yet...there was something strange about it, almost as if the hooded man was deliberately hiding what he was.

The lead horseman swore, and his eyes moved to Charlie. "You don't have the look of warriors about you. Will you give your lives for this speck of a town?"

Charlie took a deep breath, and let out slowly. There was the question. But...his decision was made. He did not intend to die. But nor could he stand by silently while the people of this town were victimized, and possibly killed. "We don't really know this town, friend. But we've met the people, and we like them. And we will do everything we can to defend them."

He heard confirming remarks from his friends then, all the way down the lines to each side of them.

"Come and get it," he heard Ricky whisper.

"They speak the truth," the hooded man on the left said then, in a deep and pleasant voice. A voice that sounded unaccountably pleased. "Hold."

And Charlie instantly recognized that voice, a sense of shock racing through him. He turned to Jackin. "It's Robin Hood!"

But Jackin did not acknowledge him. The man was frozen, unmoving, his eyes glassy. Charlie did a double-take, and looked back at the horseman. They, too, seemed like statues, even the horses beneath them rigid in their poses, as if frozen in ice.

They heard a chuckle then, and the man on the left threw back his hood. "Hello, young Charlie. And friends!"

He swung a leg over and dropped down from his horse, and then briefly rubbed his backside before smiling at them. "The mind remembers, but the body forgets. I will need a softer saddle, next time I ride."

Charlie simply stared, as did all the others. Robin looked them over, sighed, and then smiled again. "Oh, come now. You are in no danger. I think I can even say we are friends now."

Charlie could see the resemblance to Jackin. Robin's face was slightly sharper, a tad more handsome. His hair, his mustache, and his pointed beard were brown, with just a trace of red in them. His blue eyes were bright with intelligence. He was tall and lean, and looked every bit the ancient hero that Charlie had imagined him to be. He could think of but one thing then, feeling slightly silly as the thought came to him: Errol Flynn would have been proud!

But the voice, that silken, cultured voice, was unmistakable. It was the dark man, without his disguise.

And then Charlie felt the momentary roadblock to his own tongue dislodge, and his power of speech return. "What's all this about?"

Robin spread his hands, and walked slowly towards them. "A test. Surely you must understand. I could not take you at face value in the real world. Not just on your words and the things I sensed from you." He shook his head. "I have been fooled before by those with the gift. I take no chances now." He came closer, his hands still raised and open. "But here, in my own place, I cannot be fooled. I now know what you are made of. All of you." He stopped, and lowered his hands. "I give you my word of honor, Charlie. No harm will come to any of you."

Charlie's friends broke the line and moved back to surround him. Kippy moved up beside Charlie and took his hand, and glared defiantly at Robin. "Why should we believe you?"

The man laughed. "Why, indeed? I fully understand the way you feel, taken from the real world and deposited here, a place certainly strange to you."

"Not so strange, really," Charlie revealed. He looked around them before returning his gaze to the man before him. "A made world. A mind place, created by you. We've been to such places before."

Robin squinted at them. "Have you, now? And I thought myself unique in my ability to create such places."

"You're not," Kippy told him. He wrinkled his nose at the man. "In fact, you're not even the best at it."

Robin Hood laughed. "Then I really should meet whoever it is you refer to!"

"Maybe you should," Charlie agreed.

Robin looked from face to face, and then sighed. "I guess we should talk. I see now, after finally being convinced of your sincerity, that the job at hand is convincing you of mine." He stamped a foot in the snow. "A place to sit would certainly be be better, don't you think?"

Between blinks of his eyes, Charlie found them all standing once again in the common room of the tavern. Robin waved a hand at the hearth, and the frozen fire came to life, and now the heat of it warmed them. Robin turned to a table, pulled out a chair, and sat down. He waved a hand at the other chairs, and smiled. "Please?"

They sat, taking up seats at three of the tables. All eyes turned to Robin Hood.

"You really are the Robin Hood of legend?" Bobby asked then.

"Yes. Such as that legend is. A story never told correctly, even once; a ballad, a play, a verse composed by bored monks in their chambers. My name misused and abused over time; but, yes, I am he." He smiled. "Born in the year of Our Lord, 1186, and never quite happy since."

"We knew you were old," Charlie said.

"Yes, you did, and it quite astounded me!" Robin leaned forward. "May I ask how you knew?"

Charlie's eyes flicked to where Pacha sat before Mike on the table top, his gaze questioning.

"It was I that told him," Pacha admitted.

Robin blinked at the Kift. "I...I had no idea that you were capable of speech." He frowned. "But I recognize your voice now, heard from within that wonderful concealment that Charlie wields so well. You look to be a koala from the Australian continent...but, I see I will have to revise that assessment."

"It is simply a convenient and popular shape I use," the Kift returned. "One of many, actually, that I have utilized in my life."

Robin looked at Kontus then. "You, I sensed were of another world."

"I am a Trichani," Kontus returned. He frowned. "You speak eloquently, for a thief."

Robin laughed at that. "I am only a thief in my spare time, I assure you. I have held many more respectable positions in my life."

"Thievery is base," Kontus returned. "In my culture, such are to be detained and reconditioned to respect the rights of others."

"It sounds painful," Robin said, giving a mock shudder.

"It is not. But it is a very effective treatment."

"I'll pass for now," Robin returned, smiling and waving a hand. He returned his gaze to Pacha. "So both you and this overlarge fellow are from other worlds in space?"

"You don't sound very surprised," Charlie said.

"I'm not. I have long sensed others out there. I just had no idea they had come to visit."

Kippy leaned forward on the tabletop. "Was that a teleport that brought us here from the street? It didn't feel like one."

"No. Here, I am master. I simply moved us here, not the same as a teleport." Robin smiled. "It's complicated."

"What happened to the people of the town?" Adrian asked. "Are they all frozen?"

"No. They are not frozen. I simply halted the progress of this place for a time."

"You stopped time?" Horace asked.

"No. It's not like that. I cannot affect time. But here, in my world, I can halt, reverse, or simply alter the progress of everything." Robin looked around at them. "Soon, I will return you to the real world. I will make alterations here, so that to these folk, you were never here. The people will not remember you at all. The world will go on as it always has."

Charlie was saddened by that. "I think that's a shame."

Robin smiled at him. "You genuinely like these people?"

"I do."

"We all do," Kippy put in. "They're some of the more decent people we've met in our lives."

Robin drummed his fingers on the tabletop. "They all died centuries before you were born."

"They don't seem dead," Ricky said, sounding as if he didn't believe that.

"They are. Or, they are dead in the real world."

Uncle Bob gave a little grunt. "What is the purpose of"

"The purpose." It was a statement, not a question. Robin moved his gaze from one face to the next, and then briefly squeezed his eyes shut. "I have known so many people in my life."

"As long as you've been around, I believe it," Kiernan said.

Robin opened his eyes and nodded. "And I have seen countless injustices handed out to the innocent, and with no one to defend them."

The solemnness of that statement was not lost on Charlie. The heavy, almost leaden quality of it. That the man seated before them had seen much that was unpleasant in his life was clear. To have lived in the times he had lived, through the history he had witnessed - it seemed a given that much of it would be something he would have rather avoided.

Horace cleared his throat. "You said everyone in this town was dead. I must ask...your brother, too?"

Robin sighed at that. "Yes. Jackin, too. I could not save even him."

"It must not have been your fault," Kippy said. "But I'm sorry it happened."

Robin nodded. "It was my fault. I wanted us to help, to be of use to the world. But those with our gifts cannot act without becoming known. Sometimes to the very people we wish to shield the world from."

"Someone bad found out about you?" Kiernan asked.

Robin smiled at him."I love your innocence, and especially the fact that it is tempered with sense. Yes. Someone found out about us that was bad. Kedrick, the Duke of Kinsborough. As nasty a piece of work as I have ever encountered."

"What did he do?"

"Summoned us to his estate. What he wanted from us would have enhanced his power greatly, while further crushing the town and the lands around it over which he ruled. We refused."

Charlie sighed, seeing where this might be going. "He didn't take it well?"

"He seemed to, but it was all an act. He said that, well, if we were not to work for him then we should go, but to first take meal with him to show there were no hard feelings. One last meal, he said, to bid us farewell. And then he drugged us at the table, and had us declared witches while we were unconscious, and ordered an immediate prosecution of the law." Robin closed his eyes again. "He had my brother burned at the stake for witchery, while I lay witless in his foul little jail, and my turn in the flames next, had I not awakened prematurely."

"You woke up?"

"Yes. I have a greater than normal tolerance for sedatives, it seems. I woke, too late to save my brother...but not too late to exact my vengeance." Robin lowered his head.

"Revenge," Charlie said quietly. "I'm sure that wasn't...good."

"It was terrible," Robin said. He raised his head again, and his eyes were haunted. "I razed that town to the ground, and killed every soul in it, from the Duke himself down to the halfwit that cleaned his shoes. I showed no mercy, not to anyone. And so ended Kinsborough."

Silence settled over the table.

"KInsborough," Horace repeated then. "The name of this town."

"Yes." Robin shook his head. "To remind me of what anger can do, when not tempered with reason. I was young, and I was angry when I took my vengeance. My brother and I had only done good with our gifts. But this Duke of Kinsborough, he sought to use what we could do for his own ends. And when we refused..."

Mike looked angry then. "He named you as witches, and sought to do you in? Bastard!"

"Yes. He would not chance us revealing his plans to others, nor helping them against him."

"That's terrible," Kiernan said, his face pale. "But it's why we are told from childhood never to let normals know about us."

Robin nodded. "And we were told, too, Jackin and I." He sighed. "But I thought I knew better. I always thought I knew better. I thought we could do some good for the world, and that people would welcome the assistance. I though we could make the world a better place." He made an angry noise, deep in his throat. "The world." The bitterness in those last words was palpable.

He looked up. "I gathered about myself men of like thinking, and thus was set the course of my life, aiding those at the bottom, by taking from those at the top. And joyfully so, I took from them, for several centuries next. And the stories you know now were created in those years, and are still known today." He laughed. "More or less."

"Why did the stories end then?" Kippy asked.

Robin shrugged. "Times changed. People changed. The world changed. I found it safer for others to work alone, and as my powers grew, that became easier. I stopped dashing about out in the open, swinging my sword and shooting my arrows, and using my gift to ensure that I never lost. Instead I developed stealth, and silence, and the ability to teleport from place to place. Even invisibility. These abilities proved to be far less direct, but far more effective. And so I pursued those that would take from others, and now here we are today."

Charlie nodded. "That sort of life must have a price. I think it's sad to think all the world is a dark and dim place."

Robin winced at that. "The dark was with me for far longer than that. I could not forget what had been done to Jackin, nor what I had done to Kinsborough. And as time passed, I realized the full extent of what I had done. In destroying an entire town, I had killed innocent people that had no part in the Duke's plans. For every lackwit that stood in the square and watched witches burned at the stake, and cheered the flames on, there were five more townspeople in their homes, cringing at the awfulness of it, but unable to do anything against the Duke's power. They died also, needlessly, without reason, by my hand, and only my hand." Robin nodded. "I decided to atone for that act in the best way I could." He looked around the room. "I created this place, as a haven for lost souls."

"How do you mean...lost souls?" Ricky asked.

Robin looked into the fire in the hearth, and smiled. "This is a pleasant town, you have felt that yourself."

"It's sweet," Kippy said. "The people are wonderful."

"Yes. The people you have met here? Every one of them are people I have known in my time on earth. Every one of them is a person that has died by the hand of injustice, or greed, or just plain evil. I resurrect them here, and allow them to live long lives of happiness and prosperity. This place is many things. But foremost, it is safe. The people that live here will never be harmed again."

Ricky frowned at that. "What about the king's men? And the outlaws they thought were coming?"

Robin shook his head. "There is nothing beyond this town but forest and mountains, in all directions. No other towns, no other people. Just the stories of them, carried here by myself, and the occasional travelers I create and send through town to allow the people here to still feel in touch with a larger world. To feel that there is danger and intrigue afoot out there, but that they are safe here in their town. And they are."

"No one ever wants to go?"

"Yes. They are, after all, human. When one wants to explore, I let them. I fill their memories with stories of their travels, of the wickedness of the world outside, and then bring them back to their town, happy to be home, and vowing never to leave again."

"Isn't that sort of like keeping them in prison?" Kiernan asked.

Robin sighed. "This world is not the real world, young man. These people are not real people. They are formed of my memories of them, and instilled with the happiness I would give them, that eluded them during their first time on earth. If that is prison, than I am guilty. But better in prison here, than in the darkness of the real world!"

"The world is not all darkness," Charlie said. "It can be pretty nice, too."

Robin tugged at one ear, watching them. "Yes. I am not quite so disillusioned as you imagine me, young Charlie. Not so quick to paint in stark shades of gray. The world is dark, and it isn't. There is still much to recommend it. Still greatness in our people, and in our accomplishments."

The man gritted his teeth for a moment. "But those finer qualities are too often overshadowed by the greedy and ambitious among us, who would tear everything down to have their own way, in their own time. I have railed against such my entire life, the rich and powerful, those who have, and who will not share with those who have not. It has become my mission in life, to make those that will not pay their way among us, pay in some other fashion."

Kippy smiled. "Like robbing from the rich to give to the poor?"

Robin chuckled. "Exactly."

"You can't have been doing this store thing long," Uncle Bob said. "We haven't heard of the Christmas Bandit before this very year."

"I needed a change of pace," Robin said, smiling. "The retailer warehouses were a new and novel idea. You see, the wealthy and powerful of the world are more aware of my actions then they ever let on. I am a secret among them, not to be discussed publicly. They fear the knowledge that they have been victimized getting out, because it will make them seem less powerful - just one more victim of crime. For these people, their image is everything. Their wealth is everything. Their power to crush those against everything. But they have never yet been able to deal with me. And they never will, either. They have sent their people after me more than once, but I am not the average user of the gift." He smiled. "You see, though they know of me through my actions against them, they have no idea at all who I really am."

"Robin Hood," Kippy said, smiling. "The one and only."

"So you really do steal from the rich and give to the poor?" Frit asked quietly. The two elves had been silent until now, just listening.

"As often as I can." Robin seemed proud of the fact, too.

"There are better ways to serve the world," Pip said. "Better than stealing."

Robin Hood narrowed his eyes at the two then, as if just seeing them for the first time. "You two are different. Why do you feel so different?"

Charlie laughed at that. "Because they are different. They're not humans. They're elves."

Robin stared at him. "Now you do jest."

"No." Frit shook his head. "There exists a world beside your own, yet forever linked to it. We live there."

Pip nodded gravely. "We're the other human race."

Robin drew his head back, astonished. "You do not lie."

"No, they don't." Charlie smiled. "They're elves. They work for--"

Robin threw up a hand. "Don't say it!"

Charlie laughed. "They work for Santa."

Robin closed his eyes. "I asked you not to!" But then one eye opened, and he smiled. "You cannot deceive me here. You speak the truth, all of you. cannot speak the truth! Santa Claus? Elves? I have lived eight hundred years, not eight!"

Kippy leaned up against Charlie, grinning. "Give him a moment. He'll come around."

"There are better uses for your powers," Frit said. "Uses that will assist those less fortunate far better than the way you are doing it now."

Pip nodded. "And far more satisfying for you, too."

Robin watched them, thinking, and Charlie wondered what marvelous thoughts might be coursing their way through his head. Being a skwish user changed one. Made you see everything in a different light. How someone that had had skwish close at hand for eight centuries might think now was just impossible for him to imagine. Charlie had thought the same thing about Nicholaas. It must be a truly amazing way to be!

Robin pulled gently at his beard, and smiled at Frit. "Where is this other world, if I may ask?"

Frit and Pip looked at each other, and both of them grinned. "If you will take us away from here, and back to the real world, we will show you."

Kippy threw up a hand. "One favor, please?"

Robin turned his smile on him. "What is it?"

Kippy looked around the common room, and sighed. "Would you not make the people here forget us? We may want to come back someday, to visit them."

Robin Hood, the most revered thief in history, looked touched beyond words. But he nodded. "I think I can do that."

Frit smiled, and took his boyfriend's hand. "If you will loose us from your private world, we will take you to ours."

Robin looked from one face to the next, saw the expressions there: hopeful, interested, pleased. Not a guileful one among them.

He smiled then. "Nothing decent is ever gained without some element of chance."

Charlie considered that, and then nodded. "I'll agree with that."

Robin smiled, and for the first time, in a long time, there was nothing in that smile but happiness. He stood then, and extended a hand across the table. "Young Charlie? I believe you have yourself a deal."

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